Sunday 29 August 2021

My Beloved


Today’s OT reading from the Song of Solomon(2:8-13) is beautifully romantic, isn’t it?

It is a passionate, poetic dialogue between two lovers:

·         The one cries out, “(I hear) the voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.

·         The other responds, “‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.’”

Nothing can persuade me that this is about anything but the physical desire the couple have for one another – they are lovers, and they are in love. Which is why my wife Marty and I chose this passage, sharing the voices between us, at a service in Killodiernan Church to bless and celebrate our marriage, a quarter of a century ago.

But, you may ask, why should such passionate love poetry be read in church? Indeed, why should the ‘Song of Solomon’ be included in our Bible at all, since God is not mentioned in it even once? The early church chose to view this Jewish text as an allegory for the love between God and his people. Later Christians read it as an allegory of the love of Christ for his Church. And we may do so too.

But I prefer to see the inclusion of the Song of Solomon in our Bible as a sanctification of passionate human love, a recognition that it is a holy thing, inspired I feel sure by the Holy Spirit.

In our 2nd reading, James addresses his audience as ‘my beloved’, which no doubt explains why the lectionary pairs it with this reading from the Song of Solomon. ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above’, says James ‘coming down from the Father of lights.’ The essence of passionate human love is surely the generous giving by lovers of themselves, one to the other. Such love is a perfect gift from God. Without it, loving, stable human families would not be possible.

Let us look at today’s 2nd reading (James 1:17-27) a bit more closely.

The author identifies himself as ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’, and he is writing to ‘the twelve tribes scattered abroad’. It is traditionally attributed to James the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just. St Paul describes him as ‘one of the pillars of the church’ in Jerusalem. James remains in Jerusalem and writes to Jewish Christians in the diaspora, at the same time as Paul travels among and writes to Gentile Christians.

It is God’s good purpose, says James, to ‘(give) us birth by the word of truth’. I am reminded of the opening words of John’s Gospel: ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’.

‘So that’, James continues, ‘we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures’.When we offer the first fruits of the harvest to God, we intend them to be the best of the good things he has graced us with. And similarly, God intends us, through the word of truth he has given us in Jesus, to be the best people we can be. James pleads with those he writes to, and to us: ‘Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’.

‘Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger’, says James, ‘for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness’. There is a great deal of anger about just now, isn’t there? And not just anger about secular things. For instance, Christians who disagree about how to respond to God’s word in the way they treat the LGBT community are furious with each other, even in our own Church of Ireland. But James tells us that such anger is unproductive, it does not produce positive results. Instead, we should respond to God’s word with meekness, with humility, not use it to bludgeon each other in argument.

But our meekness must not result in passivity. We should ‘be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves’, says James, ‘Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers  - they will be blessed in their doing’.

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this, says James: ‘to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world’. Listening to God’s word in church on Sunday is worthless – worthless - if it does not cause us to act upon it. Our response must be twofold.

·         First, we must generously support the poor and the marginalised – and for me that includes our LGBT brothers and sisters. If not, we deserve the rebuke that Jesus gives to the Pharisees and scribes in the 3rd reading (Mark7:1-8,14-15,21-23): ‘You (are) hypocrites. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’.

·         Second, we must resist the pressures of the world to be complicit in evil. We must guard and discipline our hearts as well, for as Jesus teaches us, ‘It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person’.

I finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:

Cleanse our consciences, O Lord,
and enlighten our hearts
through the daily presence of your Son Jesus Christ,
that when he comes in glory to be our judge
we may be found undefiled and acceptable in his sight;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen


Sunday 15 August 2021

Wisdom for children

Address given to children at the Family Service in St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 15th August 2021, the 11th after Trinity.

Children, I’m going to talk to you today. I hope you will pay attention. I'm delighted to see so many of you here, and you are truly welcome. Those of you who are grown up can listen in, and perhaps some of what I say may also mean something to you. So, children, are you paying attention?

The readings we have heard today are both about wisdom – what it means to be a wise person. So I’m going to talk about being wise.

But first I’m going to tell you a story about one of my daughters. I’m glad she is not here because if she were, she might be embarrassed by what I’m going to say. When she was a little girl of 6, she was playing with her friends in the school playground as she waited for her mother to pick her up to go home. The playground was surrounded by iron railings. I don’t know why – perhaps she was dared – but she squeezed her head through the iron railings. And what do you think happened?

Her head got stuck! And however much she squirmed and wriggled, she couldn’t get her head out – her ears got in the way. Parents and teachers came to help her, pushing her head up and down, and round and about, until it started to hurt, but she was stuck fast. Eventually the headmaster sent for the fire brigade. They brought a special tool called a jack to push the bars apart, and so she was set free. Do you think she was a silly girl?

Well it was certainly a silly thing to do...

What does it mean to be wise? My dictionary tells me that it is ‘the ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions’. In other words, before you decide to do something, you think carefully about what the result would be, and you only do it if you believe it is right, if it helps people and doesn’t hurt anybody - including yourself.

In the first reading (1Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14), God asked Solomon what gift he would like to be given. Solomon could have asked for anything he wanted, wealth, fame, and so on. But Solomon asked God for an understanding mind, able to see the difference between good and evil. In other words, Solomon asked God to make him wise. This pleased God, who gave him the gift of wisdom, but also promised him riches and honour, and long life if he followed God’s commandments. The lesson we should learn from this is that God wants us to be wise like Solomon, and that if we are, we will receive other blessings too.

In the second reading (Ephesians 5:15-20), St Paul urges the Ephesians to be wise people. They should try to understand what God wants, not just what they want. Then they will be so filled with God’s Spirit of joy that they will want to thank God for all the good things they have received from God. The lesson we should learn from this is that it is not gloomy or boring to be wise. Rather, if we are wise, we will count the blessings God has given us, and we will want to dance and sing, and say thank you to God.

Let me go back to my daughter and the railings. The next day in the school assembly, the headmaster brought her to the front, and told her she had been a very silly girl, and that he hoped others would learn not to be so silly. Bravely my daughter said to him, ‘Yes, it was a silly thing to do, but I am not a silly girl’. That was a clever distinction for one so young to make. I think what she really meant is this, ‘I will learn from this bad experience so that I can do better’. In other words, she was determined to become wise – and now she is a very determined and wise grown up, the mother of three of my grandsons, and I am very proud of her!

Let us finish with a little prayer together, responding with a loud ‘Amen!’

Dear God, please show me how to be wise.
Help me to understand the consequences of my choices,
what is good and what is bad,
and help me always choose the good.
Help me to see all the blessings you have given me,
until I want to dance and sing to your praise and glory.
In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen

Sunday 8 August 2021

Bread of Life

Address given in St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th August 2021, the 10th after Trinity

One of life’s greatest pleasures is to share a meal with loved ones and friends, isn’t it?

It is for me, and it is for you too I’m sure – good food, good drink and good company. And it must have been so for Jesus as well, since so often in the Gospels we find Jesus sharing meals with others. He shared meals not just with his disciples and friends, but also with tax collectors and sinners, and with Pharisees and scribes – with all kinds of people.

When Jesus himself broke bread as the host at a meal, he had a special way of doing so – first he took the food, then he gave thanks or blessed it, and finally he broke it and shared it out. It was so distinctive that, after Jesus’s resurrection, it was only when the disciples on the road to Emmaus saw it that they recognised him. Today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John 6:35, 41-51) comes just after Jesus shares a meal with others on a grand scale – the feeding of the 5000 – a truly gigantic outdoor picnic party. There too in his special way, he took, blessed, broke and shared the five barley loaves and two fish to feed the crowd.

We can recognise this same sequence of actions – taking, blessing, breaking and sharing - in the Last Supper as recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke. And that of course is the model for the Eucharist which we with all other Christians continue to celebrate in his memory. The Last Supper can be seen as an acted parable – and so, I think, can all the other meals Jesus shared in his Eucharistic way of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing.

But what does the acted parable of Eucharist mean? In today’s reading John opens out for us the spiritual significance of Eucharist for Jesus himself, in Jesus’s own words. The last verse (John 6:51) sums up what Jesus meant:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

Today I want to share with you what these words say to me.

First, what does Jesus mean when he says, I am the living bread that came down from heaven’?

Jesus says ‘I am’ many things on different occasions, among them ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the door’, ‘I am the way’, and ‘I am the true vine’. He is of course talking in metaphors, about his relationship with those he is talking to, but also his relationship with God, who he calls his loving Father.

Jesus has just been responding to hecklers in the crowd who want him to display earthly power, as they believe Moses did by sending bread from heaven – manna - to feed the people in the wilderness. So naturally the metaphor he uses on this occasion is about bread.

As Jesus tells the hecklers, it is God, not Moses, who sent the manna, just as it is God who sends the food we all need to nourish our bodies. But Jesus wants his listeners to look beyond the physical to the spiritual. God also provides what we need to nourish our spirits – by analogy with the bread which feeds our bodies, this too is bread from heaven.

And Jesus knows that his loving-father God is calling him, by his every action and every word, to offer this spiritual nourishment to all people. So he uses metaphor to describe himself as the living bread which comes down from heaven.

The hecklers in the crowd know quite well who Jesus is - the son of Joseph the carpenter from nearby Nazareth. They choose not to understand his metaphor – and they ridicule the idea that Jesus came down from heaven.

Second, what does Jesus mean when he says, Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever’?

I suppose people since the dawn of humanity have dreaded death and had fantasies of living for ever. But we all know, as Jesus did, that our physical bodies are doomed to die and to decay. Yet for Jesus this is not what truly matters. What does matter is our relationship with God. It is those who believe that God enfolds and protects them like a loving father that are released from dread of their own mortality. So he says, Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. Eternal life is surely another metaphor for a loving relationship with God.

And more than that, Jesus knows his own importance. Working in and through him, God reveals his own nature as loving Father to those who listen. Those who feed on Jesus’s words and actions, as on bread from heaven, have eternal life.

‘This is eternal life’, says Jesus, in John’s Gospel after the Last Supper, ‘that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Third, what does Jesus mean when he says, The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’?

Jesus goes on to equate bread from heaven with his own body, his own very flesh. He does so again at the Last Supper, when he says Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you, words we still hear every time the priest consecrates the Eucharistic bread.

Many have found this suggestion of cannibalism very shocking. It certainly upset the hecklers in the crowd. And it upset many of Jesus’s disciples too, who, as we are told, turned back and no longer went about with him.

And it still causes problems for some of Jesus’s disciples today. On the one hand we have those who accept the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby in some miraculous way the essence of the Eucharistic bread is actually transformed into the essence of Jesus’s flesh. On the other, we have those who are disturbed by the idea that the Eucharist involves eating human flesh.

I think that perhaps some people interpret these words of Jesus too literally, as the hecklers in the crowd did. For here surely Jesus is extending the metaphor of bread from heaven, and to understand it we need to look behind the literal words.

Christians have wrestled to understand Jesus’s metaphor of his flesh as bread ever since. They have come up with many different ideas – and perhaps this is part of the strength of the metaphor, that it can be understood in so many ways. For myself, I think the point is simply this - Jesus is expressing the depth of his commitment to God’s saving work for us. He is ready to give up his life, his human existence, his very flesh, for our salvation.  That is precisely what he did for us on the cross.

These words of Jesus are difficult. I have told you what they mean for me, and I hope you find it helpful.

But why don’t you take home the pew sheet and spend a little time to ponder Jesus’s words for yourself? They may speak to you in quite a different way to how they speak to me. And that is OK. Metaphors often bear many different meanings at the same time. God will surely grant you the ones that are right for you.

Listen again to what Jesus says:

‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word

Grant, O Lord,
that we may see in you the fulfilment of all our need,
and may turn from every false satisfaction
to feed on the true and living bread
that you have given us in Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen